Throughout the continuing course of imagining, writing and researching this book–one that I describe as, that is nonfiction–many have suggested that I fictionalize my subject.
It’s difficult for someone who writes memoir–particularly someone who is (barely) under thirty and not famous or otherwise miserable, not to feel defensive on behalf of the form: it’s taken a lot of heat in the last few years, to put it mildly.
But arguments made from a blatently hostile (defensive) posture are rarely compelling: one winds up arguing for the genre’s eminence as opposed to, merely, it’s right to exist, or, even, one invididual’s particular privilege to write it. I hesitate to go there. That’s not to say, of course, that haven’t. (Or won’t.) My responses have surely varied, but a few things have always been true:
One is that I have thought about it, and that I may in fact do so, at least in part.
Another is that I’m not very good at writing fiction. To me, it feels something like how I imagine it would feel to have a child: exquisitely painful, singularly rewarding, and something one can only do once every few years without stretching one’s body/brain in potentially dangerous directions. (I should clarify that, with spare few exceptions, each of The World’s Children represent accomplishments far greater than my paltry attempts at literary fiction.)
Anyhow: the point is that that what compels me to create, first and foremost, is an interest in making connections, not making up stories.
That said, I do, really, believe in memoir as a form.
Over the weekend I went to hear (the adorable, brilliant, undeniably–as one friend put it, “foxy”) Nathan Englander talk with Leonard Lopate and read from his new story collection; it was (outrageously) snowing in Brooklyn, and I imagine the underground library would have been more crowded with bodies and plastic-rimmed glasses had it not been, but his charm reverberated nonetheless.
At one point, while talking about his enterprises outside of fiction–translation work, dramaturgy–he made reference to the short story as the “supreme literary form.” “I’ll argue that with anyone,” he declared, before going on to not make the argument at all.
The thing is I’m sure he could make that argument. I’m sure someone could also make that argument about lyric poetry, or narrative poetry, or street jazz.
And, certainly, you could make it about memoir. And while I’m not sure I want to, I feel pretty confident I could.
Here’s why: to my mind, there’s a basic reason we find ourselves wildly compelled by the particular, intimate experience of complete strangers–when, that is, it’s rendered with beauty. It’s that, no matter its focus–grief, loss, love, secrets, sex–the subject of all memoir, is, in one way or another, the search for self-understanding.
And that search, to me, is the most universal human experience. We can’t come close to fully knowing another person; the only subject we can ever grasp is ourselves; memoir makes that journey art. At its worst, it can be disengenuous and without humor; at its best, it can be painful and raw. But it’s almost always human.
This week I had my chart read by a friend’s New Agey Therapist. I, of course, already see a therapist. But said friend felt I so urgently needed the wisdom of hers–one who incorporates astrology–that she actually paid for my session.
(New Agey Therapist: “How do you feel about your friend thinking you need this so badly she’s paying for it?” Me: “Well, funny about her paying for it. But otherwise, great! It’s no secret I’m in dire need of professional help!”)
As far as astrology goes, I’ve never had particularly strong feelings one way or another: I’ve identified, rather aggressively, with the Libra traits–indecisive, social, needing, always, balance and art. But I never gave much critical thought to the enterprise–why or whether it ought to hold up.
I still haven’t–and frankly, probably won’t. Unlike certain other belief systems, I don’t see astrology as threatening potential harm or large scale military action–and I’m interested in it as a tool, another means of investigating, and shaping a story around, who I am and why.
So I listened, rapt, as this woman explained the indecipherable, multicolored circle known as my birth chart. It was, again, a reminder of the unique comfort in being told who and how you are, what you’ve done and are doing can be explained: that there’s some sense and reason to it, that it isn’t just random.
It’s easy to dismiss astrology, as it is most systems of belief: they’re based in bullshit myths; they traffic in broad generalities, they give people false hope.
But I also know that when you’re in your late twenties and sorting out who you are and what you’re meant to do, perhaps nothing is more precious than being told such angst is determined by the stars. (Saturn, specifically, which is taking its sweet ass time finishing it’s orbit around me. Hmmph.)
It’s as meaningful as being able to tell someone, as I have, during the course of this project, that their memory–or lack thereof–makes sense; that there’s history, or science, behind what might seem a painful blank.
(Sidenote: Ben Greenman wrote a much funnier, less direct defense of memoir in the Times Book Review this weekend, and you should read it.)
All to say: there are infinite ways to tell stories, none (debatably) intrinsically superior. Those of us who tell them choose the form that makes sense to us; my adviser used to say writers don’t choose subjects, their subjects choose them. I suspect that’s true for form as well.
And stories, as Lots of People Before Me have said in various ways, are kind of all we have.